If you read one thing that I write for Mother Earth News, make it this blog. Here’s why: It is very common for people to underestimate the preparation required to get into small-scale dairy farming. I have met many non-farmers who think that operating a Micro Dairy must be a simple proposition; after all, farmers do it. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Operating a dairy farm is unlike anything else that most people will ever do, and I have seen many people with no farming experience buy dairy farms thinking that they can convert their business and/or corporate success into success on the farm. Some even go into it thinking that they can teach experienced dairy farmers how to operate their farms more efficiently or profitably. Unfortunately new dairy farmers with that attitude rarely survive more than a couple of years.
You see, Micro Dairies may seem “simple,” but they are actually complex businesses to manage. If you are getting into dairy farming with no previous agricultural experience, be humble. Enter the field as you would a large library - quietly, full of humility and with a desire to learn. On that note, here are my top tips for making sure that your experience and goals are in line with running a successful Micro Dairy:
• Make sure that you enjoy physical work and handling dairy animals.
• Get to know your neighboring farmers and don't hesitate to ask them for advice or help. They will be your best resource and, quite possibly, your savior at some point down the road. Talk to the farmers about the pros and cons of their operations and facilities. You will never learn what you need to know by surfing the Internet unless you back up your research with farm visits and discussions with farmers who are actually doing what you plan to do.
• When it comes time to plan your farm, research what you will need for buildings and equipment by visiting as many farms as you can.
• Create a budget and stick to it. It is not a matter of spending your money wisely; it's a matter of learning how to solve problems by not spending money.
• Be realistic about the scale of your operation. Some farmers suffer from what can be a fatal behavioral pattern. They think that if they only had more dairy animals, a new tractor, a bigger barn, more equipment, etc. that their work would be easier or they would be more stable financially. This plan rarely works and often leads to more work and debt.
Micro Dairies are not generally stepping stones to fame and fortune. They are modest little farms designed to produce farm-fresh milk and dairy products for friends and neighbors that, if properly managed can also generate modest profits for their owners. If you are a master marketer or have the skills to produce gourmet-quality artisan cheeses or butter, you may be able to make a living doing so. Otherwise, don’t plan on it. Instead, research your community and the potential market for your product or products. If you are fortunate to live in a community or state that allows the sale of raw milk directly from farms or farmers markets, start there and keep it simple.
The secret of operating a successful Micro Dairy is finding that sweet spot where you no longer need to grow. I understand that this logic is contrary to the good old capitalist spirit that encourages constant growth. Maybe so. Perhaps it’s time to step off of the treadmill and create a network of small, stable Micro Dairies scaled to their local communities that dependably produce safe and delicious farm-fresh milk and dairy products for friends and neighbors. I guess a final tip is to make sure that you are getting into the Micro Dairy business for the right reasons and that you have reasonable expectations that are grounded in reality.